Past the abandoned steel mills and brown rocky hills, a $12 cab ride outside of El Paso proper, Rosa's Cantina shared a dead strip of hot, paved road with a Laundromat, a Mexican restaurant, and a liquor store. Across the street, two railroad tracks and a stone wall were all that separated Rosa's from the brown and muddy Rio Grande and the undeveloped ruggedness of New Mexico beyond.
Rosa's Cantina itself looked hopelessly dilapidated, a crumbling stone façade with one no-frills white-and-red sign above the door. Coming inside out of the heat and sun, I couldn't see much at first in Rosa's, and all I could hear was the thrumming rattle of an old air conditioner. There was a TV on in the back of the room and some lights in the ceiling turned on really low, by which I could sketch out the red-felt pool table, the wraparound bar, and the 20 or so tables with red-and-white checkered plastic cloths.
The paneled walls were lined, under protective chicken wire, with images of the Mexican-flavored Old West (stagecoaches, bullfights, Indians, and the like), and also by not-protected beer advertisements and sports imagery. Among the decorative touches hung the likenesses of three celebrities: Marty Robbins, John Wayne, and Secretariat. By the door, a "Felony Notice" warned against the possession of licensed or unlicensed weapons.
I ordered a can of Coke ($1), no glass, and asked to see the menu. It was three in the afternoon when I arrived, and besides the bartender (whose name, of course, was Rosie), I was the only one there. Rosa's served lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. The fare -- a price-fixed meal of Mexican and American delights ranging from tostadas and tacos to meat loaf -- was offered for $4.75. And they didn't sell hard liquor at Rosa's, just soda, wine, and beer. American beers cost $1.75 and imports were $2.25. By imports, they meant Tecate and Negra Modelo.
There was a jukebox at Rosa's Cantina, and aside from Marty Robbins, there was some Johnny Paycheck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Strait, Willie Nelson, and ZZ Top among the dozens of Latin discs. There were also offerings by the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Fats Domino. I could almost picture what it would be like to party in Rosa's Cantina, late into the Texas night.
But I couldn't figure out how Marty Robbins had ever gathered the idea for a song from this quaint place. True, the hill in the song behind Rosa's, where the hero makes his daring escape, had been redesigned as a monstrous overpass for Interstate 10. But Rosie told me everything else was the same, and it wasn't much. I guess one feller's dive bar is another's inspiration.
In the spirit of comparison, I decided a few hours before dusk to test the ease of an El Paso border crossing. Six times since I've lived in San Diego, I've been through San Ysidro -- three times into Tijuana and three times coming back -- and it has never taken me less than a damn long time to return. But over in El Paso, the man at the airport, the cabdrivers, the woman at the hotel, all of them told me that Ciudad Juárez was El Paso's sister city, a claim I've seldom heard echoed regarding San Diego and Tijuana. Surely, then, passage between the two had to be considerably more trouble free.
So I left my hotel walking downtown through what was becoming a bearable heat. Mostly Hispanic families lined the streets, families out shopping for mangoes and knockoff Louis Vuittons, folks commuting homeward from work. The shopkeepers were taking in wares and preparing to pull down grates as all of downtown El Paso started closing up.
In a few minutes, I got to the Santa Fe Street bridge on the bottom center edge of downtown (think the distance from Horton Plaza to the convention center). On our side of the bridge, a tiny Mexican-looking woman, who doled change to those who needed it, operated an old-fashioned turnstile. I sidled to the back of a modest line of mostly Mexicans, all ages. We had to pay the little lady 35 cents, for which we were given a blue generic ticket, which then had to be passed to a Mexican-looking man who stood ten feet away and collected tickets. That was it. Like at a carnival. Just a two-minute line, a turnstile, and a bridge between Mexico and me.
As I started up the low-walled sidewalk, over the vaulting, concrete, six-laned expanse of Santa Fe Street bridge, my cell phone read 4:42. Below, railroad tracks and boxcars and the concrete-lined winding of the choked and polluted Rio Grande. I descended the far curve of the bridge, stepped onto foreign land, and noted the time: 4:50. Only eight minutes to cross. About the same as at San Ysidro.
In Mexico, I pirouetted on the charming old cobbled road, a road that was as good as the day it was laid, and as I did, I tried to take a look around. But I was accosted on every side. Children selling T-shirts; adults hocking knickknacks; a woman holding up a money can, her other hand lifting a pant leg to show me hideous bruises and scars; hustling drivers of nearby roadside cabs. The buildings, mostly bars and motels, right there at the crossing to the richest country in the world, were terribly run-down. It was a sad mayhem.
Across the two lanes of what had become Juárez Street was another turnstile revolving back toward the United States, a turnstile with no line at all. Of course, in light of the competitive American spirit, the cost for U.S. entry was less than the cost to get to Mexico, just 25 cents. However, the money-taker was no old lady; a badged man in a uniform collected my quarter.
I walked the bridge again, mostly alone this time, and experienced that old U.S. hospitality: a building devoted to my safe reentry. A building housing customs offices, customs officials, the obligatory turnstiles, and conveyor belts leading through X-ray machines. One of the officers near the conveyor belts quietly demanded identification and asked a few questions. Late afternoon, midweek, summer month, and the line to get into the United States of America consisted of a single suitcase-bearing Mexican woman in front of me. The moments I waited, I noticed dust and faint music descending through the high-windowed room.